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The Secret to Flawless Skin Could Lie in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine

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Acupuncturist Sandra Lanshin Chiu likens the human face to a car: Fixing what’s wrong with it takes a bit of poking around under the hood. “I’m like a mechanic who has to figure out the right tools,” she explains.

At Treatment by Lanshin, her wellness center in Williamsburg, Chiu offers “elevated” holistic solutions for skin problems like acne, eczema, wrinkles, sagging skin, and rosacea, prescribing an intricate formula of acupuncture and Chinese medicine to correct internal disruptions in the digestive, hormonal, and nervous systems — which, she says, are at the root of most skin problems, and why changing your cleanser or buying the latest cure-all cream is not the answer.

“By the time a problem has erupted on the dermis, months and possibly years of accumulated imbalance of the internal organs has taken effect,” says Chiu, who earned her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego. “Topical steroids, skin-stripping washes, antibiotics, and birth control hormones may offer temporary relief, but they do not truly correct the issue. That’s why skin problems often return with a vengeance once a person decides to discontinue such meds.”

My own struggle with rosacea — an incurable skin condition affecting more than 16 million Americans — led me down a depressing path of expensive prescription creams, medicinal-strength essential oils, and hokey face masks that all promised the moon but got me nowhere. For six years I avoided dairy, red wine, spicy foods, and hot saunas in an effort to keep the redness at bay. At one particularly low point I even washed my face with a soap of pine tar and sulfur after reading online about its “miracle” healing properties. Nothing worked.

According to Diana Hermann, who is board-certified in Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture and practices at Fort Collins Clinic in Colorado, rosacea reflects a (metaphorical) internal imbalance of heat. Acupuncture and herbs can effectively clear this pathogenic heat (which, according to Chinese theory, is responsible for fever, inflammation, and dry skin) to reduce symptoms of redness, flushing, and acne-like blemishes, while preventing or minimizing the progression of rosacea. “Acupuncture clears heat from the lungs and stomach to reduce flushing and heat rising to the face,” Hermann explains, adding that a pooling of heat in the face and head inhibits proper circulation throughout the rest of the body.

But heat blockage is usually the expression of a breakdown in function elsewhere in the body. “My job is to figure that out,” says Chiu. “Is this from a dysfunction in the digestive system? Or excess and long-term stimulation to the nervous system, like emotional stress, blocking normal function of the liver system? Or is it due to a weakness of the kidney and adrenal system? Usually rosacea does not exist alone — there are always corresponding symptoms occurring in tandem — and this goes for most skin conditions. Once I determine what systems are not functioning properly, I design a strategy using acupuncture and herbal therapy to correct the problem.”

My problem, it turned out, was in my gut. Chiu traced my rosacea to a two-week course of antibiotics back in 2010, which she believes caused a major bacterial imbalance in my digestive system that had been brewing ever since. She prescribed whey-free probiotics and once-weekly acupuncture to clear any heat buildup.

The needles hurt, but not in the same way stabbing yourself while sewing might. As Chiu slid the needles into each meridian, or energy point, on my body, I could feel a sharp sting, similar to when you hit your funny bone and a tingling sensation travels up your elbow’s ulnar nerve. I’m told this means it’s working, and several seconds later any discomfort from the needles disappeared, leaving me to slip in and out of sleep for my hour-long appointment. Four weeks later, the rosacea had vanished. Six months on, there is still no sign of it.

Depending on your skin issue, some treatments may take longer — from a few months up to a year — but the goal is always the same: to eliminate prescription medications and trial-and-error topical creams. Dylan Stein, owner of Manhattan-based Dylan Stein Acupuncture, treats acne, rosacea, and psoriasis. He notes that “some very stubborn cases” may require an additional period of consolidating treatments to ensure symptoms don’t return. “Each person is unique, and no timeline is set in stone,” Stein says. “But the ultimate goal of any acupuncturist should be to have you walk out of the office one day and not need to come back.”

Chiu agrees, but “transforming a problem that surfaced last month is far easier than one that’s been around for ten years,” she says. Ultimately, clients with the highest success rates are those who make the necessary changes to emotional patterns and lifestyle factors that contribute to the issue. “Almost all of my skin clients are driven, smart, and high-functioning — but at the same time they tend to be self-critical and easily frustrated with themselves and their circumstances,” explains Chiu. She teaches that skincare is both physical and emotional, where “positive, appreciation-driven, self-loving regard” can actually help the skin to heal. It seems beauty isn’t only skin-deep after all.

[This is part of the spring 2016 edition of Sheer, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered. Check out the rest of Sheer’s featured stories here.]

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